x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Berbatov's hat-trick proves beauty fades with time

As fans, the overarching requirement of sports is for their teams to win. Owners want the same, though really they want what victory brings: money.

Has sport lost its patience with beauty?

This comes up naturally in a week in which Dimitar Berbatov has resurfaced, bobbing up like a lost treasure from some luxury liner shipwreck, and reminded us that sport was the promise of happening upon the physical beauty of the active human form.

I find Berbatov beautiful to watch. First it is his form, which, though lean, is unmistakably concave and unable to shed the suspicion it would rather be in repose. Then there is his carriage (movement is too ugly a word): long glides, not steps.

And then, of course, is the care he takes but does not show in doing what he does with the ball, as if adhering to rules of fashion to never look rushed and always strive to make that look extraordinary which is most mundane.

If footballers can ever be described as such, then the overall effect of Berbatov's presence on the field - and his imagination - is curved and parabolic; not straight, or regular.

The Dutch look at football slightly askew and, as David Winner explains in his book on Dutch football Brilliant Orange, also like footballers who think and play in curves, not straight lines.

Traditionally, they have valued form at least as much as function, to our pleasure and ultimately, their own anguish.

But this is enough for me. I don't need to see Berbatov score goals necessarily, even to set them up, to win matches, or be tactically smart (though he does all).

Yet, more and more, it is not enough elsewhere, not the way the wind blows today.

Berbatov's beauty will probably be victim not just to requirements at Manchester United soon, but to top-level football and there is a bigger truth in that than just his fate.

The original question is cause for deeper interrogation but a few thoughts in this space.

As fans, increasingly the overarching requirement of sports is for their teams, or players, to win. Owners of sports clubs, and administrators, want the same, though really they only want what victory brings: money.

Coaches and managers want to win so that they can stay employed. Journalists are just happy to be able to watch sports for free, pretending to analyse in the name of tactics and strategy and metaphors for life.

In all this, how content is anyone from simply having seen something in their sport that took their breath away?

We are lucky currently to be able to live in a time of Roger Federer and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.

But they are outliers in managing to be both successful and shifting, breathing bodies of art at once.

Mostly now sport, teams and sportsmen function towards an ever narrower set of specific ends, none of which are to produce something - or be played in a manner - so visually arresting it justifies itself.

Only the end can justify the means today, and the means to that end are not concerned with prettiness.

If you're just good to watch but don't win much, then you are an anachronism, or luxury.

Eventually you develop the type of deep creases Arsene Wenger has. Or you're Marco Baghdatis.

This is not only the crime of football. Evidence of this is found in many sports.

Field hockey long ago lost its swift, snaky appeal, the best players slipping their body through a dangerous mess of sticks and limbs with ball intact (though Australia's Jamie Dwyer is a notable exception). It remains swift, but functional and reliant heavily on collective strategies of team shape with less space for an individual such as Shahbaz Ahmed Sr, or Dhanraj Pillay, for example, to emerge.

Cricket is still more tolerant (though impatience is manifesting itself in a different way: No longer, for example, is it enough for a leg spinner to just be a leg spinner, he must be able to bat a little and field a lot as well).

But something about England's rise to the top of Test cricket, particularly their batting (the skill in which beauty is most apparent), captures well this triumph of function over much else.

Most depressingly it has come in the dulling of Kevin Pietersen's game, once with all the colours and preening of a peacock, now merely left with the grey assurance of a dutiful pigeon.

But he is winning, someone will argue, they are winning and someone, somewhere, many people probably are making plenty of money because of it and being happy with it.

As if that was ever the only reason for sport.